The Pong Su (봉수호) was a 349-foot (106 m) a 3743 tonne ocean freighter registered in Tuvalu and North Korean owned. The ship was flying the flag of Tuvalu as it is known as a flag of convenience. Searches of the ship by Australian authorities revealed the ship had been modified for long voyages and was carrying enough fuel and provisions to travel around the world without needing to port.
On April 16 2003, police in Australia observed the Pong Su close to shore at Boggaley Creek near the seaside town of Lorne in Victoria and followed two Chinese suspects on the shore as they left the beach and headed for a near-by hotel. The next morning, the two suspects were apprehended at their hotel with 50 kg of pure heroin. Then, in a search of the beach at Boggaley Creek, Australian police discovered the body of a North Korean recently buried close to a dinghy. It is suspected that the dinghy had capsized while bringing the heroin ashore, drowning one of the North Koreans. Police also apprehended another North Korean in the immediate area. Unable to get back to his boat, he had simply remained in the area where the drugs came ashore the night before. A third ethnic Chinese drug trafficking suspect was also taken into custody. A further 75 kg of heroin in similar packaging was discovered buried near Lorne in May 2003.
The Australian government ordered the Pong Su into harbour; however, the ship attempted to escape into international waters. After a four day chase, known as Operation Sorbet, the Pong Su was captured after Australian Army Special Operations Forces stormed the ship in a helicopter landing. The Pong Su was secured and brought into port in Sydney.
Some 30 men were arrested and detained, one who, according to Australian media reports, was a member of the North Korean ruling party who served as senior envoy in Pyongyang's embassy in Beijing. It has been alleged that the North Korean government may have been involved in the manufacture and trade of the drugs. The North Korean government stated the ship was a 'civilian trading ship', and the ship's owner had no knowledge of the illegal cargo.
The ethnic Chinese suspects and the captain and crew of the Pong Su were charged with narcotics trafficking. Most significantly, an official of the governing Korean Workers' Party was found on board, linking the drug shipment to Kim Jong-il's government. The Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called in the North Korean Ambassador to lodge a formal protest.
Drug charges were laid against the ship's entire crew. Twenty-seven crew members were discharged on March 5, 2004 by a magistrate on the basis that there was insufficient evidence for them to stand trial. While awaiting deportation, the crew were held in Baxter Detention Centre; during which time they were questioned by federal authorities. They were deported from Australia on June 24, 2004.
Four senior crew members were kept in Australia to face a jury trial. They were:
All four crew members pleaded not guilty at the beginning of their trial in August 2005. (Another four men - from Malaysia, Singapore and China, and not part of the ship's crew - had already pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the importation of a commercial quantity of heroin.)
The prosecution case against the four North Korean officers was that they would have allowed their ship to be stopped in the position it was if they were not aware that the real purpose of their voyage was to smuggle the heroin. The prosecution did not allege any official involvement of the DPRK Government (North Korean government), only the officers on board the ship.
Authorities eventually decided to scuttle the ship and on 23 March 2006, in a joint RAAF and RAN military exercise, the Pong Su was sunk by two 2000-pound (907 kg) laser guided bombs dropped from RAAF F-111 aircraft. The deliberate destruction of the freighter was said to deliver a strong message to international drug smuggling rings that the AFP and Commonwealth Government would take all measures necessary to stop illegal drug importation.